Reactivating Activism

In early June, as the class of 1996 exchanged farewells, members of the class of 1971 reassembled in Cambridge to celebrate 25 years in the Real World. Many '71 grads raised clenched fists in greeting, a testament to the fiery emotions and turbulent politics that defined their College community. The gesture exemplified how strongly social and political activism once flourished amid and despite the comfortable seclusion of Harvard Yard.

Yet during the class of '71's inevitable journey from Hair to gray hairs and Black Power to power suits, as the nation's political pendulum swung back to conservatism, on-campus activism atrophied. Call it Gen-X apathy, call it the Reagan era-somehow a pall fell over the long-clamorous voices of Harvard students. More and more students kept silent about national and global ills as they paved the way to personal glory. Clearly, the times they had a-changed. Were the kids still all right?

Well, if the past year at Harvard is any indication, perhaps so. The 1995-96 academic year witnessed an atypical flurry of activist activity. Coalitions formed, acronyms multiplied, pamphlets were distributed, protests staged-in late spring, dean of students Archie Epps, B.D. '61, was wary enough to have Harvard police stationed at University Hall for a week to prevent a possible reenactment of 1969, when he was bodily ejected from the premises by student demonstrators. What happened?

Students of the 1990s, not having such grand issues as the Vietnam War or the civil-rights struggle around which to unite in social action, have become increasingly mindful of what they perceive as more localized abuses of power. "For activism to flourish, you need an adversary," suggests Amelia Kaplan '96 ('97), a member of Education For Action (E4A), a Radcliffe-based group devoted to sponsoring and financing activist projects. "This past year, Harvard became that adversary." All across the College, students have come to share a nagging suspicion--that Harvard administrators value undergraduate perspectives less than ever. "Consensus is another type of leadership, but Harvard doesn't seem to care about it," remarks Kaplan.

How did Fair Harvard become the target of campus activism? This past year, students saw the cornerstones of undergraduate life-housing, classes, and extracurriculars-reconfigured in spite of their vocal disapproval. The College ended the compromise housing-assignment system of ordered choice and initiated a policy of total randomization, despite overwhelming student objection. Meanwhile, the longstanding attempts of the student-run Ethnic Studies Action Committee (ESAC) to create an ethnic studies department on campus have been dismissed by College ocials. And members of Phillips Brooks House Association (PBHA), Harvard's largest undergraduate public-service organization, were incensed when dean of the College Harry Lewis '68, Ph.D. '74, altered the administrative structure of what the students considered their own organization (see "Entente Ahead?" September-October, page 73).

"I personally feel the administration isn't sensitive to undergraduate concerns," notes Irene Cheng '97, an active member of ESAC. "They pay lip service to undergrads, but they won't allow us any substantive input in decision-making." Jace Clayton '97, co-founder of Strategic Offense Systems (SOS), one of the newer activist organizations on campus, agrees. "When the multiple petitions against randomization were totally ignored [in the spring of 1995], students felt marginalized. Then the PBH affair really illustrated to all of us Harvard's blatant disregard for undergrads."

"Harvard's reexerting control over PBHA showed how threatened the administration is by student-controlled organizations," proclaims Kaplan. "The whole PBH affair really spurred students to take the initiative," concurs Cheng. Indeed, the December 7 PBH rally in Harvard Yard, 700 students strong, was, according to the Crimson, the "largest student-run protest in recent memory."

Although they appreciate the empowering effect the PBH furor had on undergraduates at large, many of the students who were already committed to social action felt the rally signified the "sad state" of campus activism. Marco Simons '97, ESAC activist and founder of the Burma Action Group (BAG), remarks, for example, that Harvard's plans for PBH "aren't all that radical. There are definitely some concerns [in PBH's structure] that should be addressed." "Students often confuse social action and social service," says Kaplan. Alexa Gutheil '96, another member of E4A, agrees that, "Although the PBH rallies started people thinking, PBH is not activist."

To the activist vanguard, Harvard's commitment to social action and student involvement is more complex than recent undergraduate discontent would suggest. "Harvard's focus right now is the capital campaign," explains Kaplan. "While we all reap the benefits in terms of more appointments, we feel that more voices should be included in the dialogue on the University's mission." Across Cambridge Common, Radcliffe is perceived in the same mixed light. "Radcliffe has tried to incorporate many of E4A's principles and language," notes Gutheil. "Unfortunately, they also seem to be writing E4A out of their budget."

Marco Simons has found the College "surprisingly responsive" to his own efforts to promote selective purchasing and socially responsible investing in Burma. But he notes that campus-focused activist groups like ESAC usually see "little to no progress." "Harvard generally will listen to students when it has to," he observes. "Alas, that's not very frequently."

To capitalize on the increased student awareness triggered by Harvard's perceived paternalism, committed student activists have tried to draw attention to what they consider more dangerous adversaries, such as "the 1994 Republican Congress and the Contract with America, " says Simons. "They galvanized the left." Jace Clayton concurs. "The first major protest of last year was SOS's [September] sit-in in Gov 1091," in which SOS operatives, posing as members of a far-right organization, gave conservative professor of government Harvey Mansfield '53, Ph.D. '61, a lifetime achievement award for his part in keeping Harvard "straight, white, and male." "With the national mood as it was," states Clayton, "we wanted to establish an activist presence at Harvard early in the term and alert first-years quickly to Mansfield's politics."

To focus anti-Harvard activism on larger goals, the student left has tried to pool its resources in a new flagship organization devoted to social and political action on the local, national, and global levels. But as their national counterparts can attest, reassembling the balkanized left is no walk in the park. "We're constantly grappling with issues of diversity, gender, and sexual orientation," comments Cheng. "Many students who consider themselves 'liberal' or 'progressive' balk at radicalism."

Not surprisingly, several early consolidation attempts quickly ran aground. Both the Progressive Undergraduate Council Coalition (PUCC), an alliance working to reform campus government, and the Progressive Action Network (PAN), an early e-mail-intensive organization dominated by white males, attempted to coordinate campus-wide activism "in a very top-down fashion" without "open, flexible leadership." The former organization now devotes itself primarily to Undergraduate Council reform, while the latter, recognizing that it was "inadequately sensitive to race and gender dynamics," as founder Adam Hefty '96 put it, voted to disband.

The most recent attempt to unify disparate student activists began last April, when more than 100 aspiring demonstrators met to hear Cornel West '74, professor of Afro-American studies and of the philosophy of religion, and former E4A coordinator Faith Adiele '86 advocate the creation of a new umbrella organization, UNITE. After the speeches, the assembly broke into discussion groups and debated projects for the future. "There was a presence in the air that something was going to get done," remembers Clayton of that "very inspirational night." "We're very excited about the number of people who came and the diversity of the leadership," remarks Cheng. "Now, the organization must undergo self-criticism at every stage to become truly effective and not undermine its purpose."

UNITE is still in its formative stages. Although some critics have deemed the organization's leadership "too slow and consensual" to mobilize effectively, the first newsletter of the new academic year was released late in September. If the group succeeds in revitalizing the student left, particularly by diverting the discontent engendered by College policies to combat the machinations of the national right, then Harvard, as in the 70s, may once again boast a truly robust activist community, involved in change within the Yard and well beyond.

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Fellow Kevin C. Murphy is an American history
concentrator living in Adams House.

Read more articles by: Kevin C. Murphy

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